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Peter singer pratical ethics 2nd edition fixed

Practical Ethics
Second Edition


Centre for Human Bioethics
Monash University


Peter Singer's remarkably clear and comprehensive Practical Ethics has become a classic introduction to applied ethics since its
publication in 1979 and has been translated into many languages. For this second edition the author has revised all the
existing chapters, added two new ones, and updated the bibliography. He has also added an appendix describing some of
the deep misunderstanding of, and consequent violent reaction
to, the book in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland where the
book has tested the limits of freedom of speech.
The focus of the book is the application of ethics to difficult and
controversial social questions: equality and discrimination by

race, sex, ability, or species; abortion, euthanasia, and embryo
experimentation; the Moral Status of animals; political violence
and civil disobedience; overseas aid and the obligation to assist
others; responsibility for the environment; the treatment of refugees. Singer explains and assesses relevant arguments in a
perspicuous, nondoctrinaire way. He structures the book to
show how contemporary controversies often have deep philosophical roots; and he presents an ethical theory of his own that
can be applied consistently and convincingly to all the practical
The book's primary readership remains teachers and students
of ethics whether in philosophy or some other branch of the
humanities or social sciences. However, such is the clarity of
the book's style and structure that it should interest any thinking
person concerned with the most difficult social problems facing
us as we approach the twenty-first century.

"Singer's book is packed with admirably marshaled and detailed
information, social, medical, and economic, and has a splendid
appendix of notes and references to further reading. The utility
of this utilitarian's book to students of its subject can hardly be
- H.L.A. Hart, New York Review of Books
"Peter Singer has provided us with a good example of the fruits
of a major and by now established extension of philosophical
interest. He succeeds in being straightforward, clear, and forceful
without oversimplifying the technical aspects of the problems
he discusses or trivializing the underlying philosophical issues."
- The Times Higher Education Supplement
"This book is concentrated fare. The masterly and lively writing,
rich with brief and telling examples, is devoted to close reasoning on some basic issues confronting the human community."
- The Humanist
"Excellent and highly provocative."
- Choice


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© Cambridge University Press 1993
This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and
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no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.
First published 1993
Reprinted 1993 (twice), 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 (twice), 1998,
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ISBN 0-521-43363-0 hardback
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page vii

1 About Ethics
2 Equality and Its Implications
3 Equality for Animals?
4 What's Wrong with Killing?
5 Taking Life: Animals
6 Taking Life: The Embryo and the Fetus
7 Taking Life: Humans
8 Rich and Poor
9 Insiders and Outsiders
10 The Environment
11 Ends and Means
12 Why Act Morally?
Appendix: On Being Silenced in Germany
Notes, References, and Further Reading






Practical ethics covers a wide area. We can find ethical ramifications in most of our choices, if we look hard enough. This
book does not attempt to cover this whole area. The problems
it deals with have been selected on two grounds: their relevance,
and the extent to which philosophical reasoning can contribute
to a discussion of them.
I regard an ethical issue as relevant if it is one that any thinking person must face. Some of the issues discussed in this book
confront us daily: what are our personal responsibilities towards
the poor? Are we justified in treating animals as nothing more
than machines producing flesh for us to eat? Should we be
using paper that is not recycled? And why should we bother
about acting in accordance with moral principles anyway?
Other problems, like abortion and euthanasia, fortunately are
not everyday decisions for most of us; but they are issues that
can arise at some time in our lives. They are also issues of current
concern about which any active participant in our society's decision-making process needs to reflect.
The extent to which an issue can usefully be discussed philosophically depends on the kind of issue it is. Some issues are
controversial largely because there are facts in dispute. For example, whether the release of new organisms created by the
use of recombinant DNA ought to be permitted seems to hang
largely on whether the organisms pose a serious risk to the
environment. Although philosophers may lack the expertise to
tackle this question, they may still be able to say something
useful about whether it is acceptable to run a given risk of

environmental damage. In other cases, however, the facts are
clear and accepted by both sides; it is conflicting ethical views
that give rise to disagreement over what to do. Then the kind
of reasoning and analysis that philosophers practise really can
make a difference. The issues discussed in this book are ones
in which ethical, rather than factual, disagreement determines
the positions people take. The potential contribution of philosophers to discussions of these issues is therefore considerable.
This book has played a central role in events that must give
pause to anyone who thinks that freedom of thought and
expression can be taken for granted in liberal democracies today.
Since its first publication in 1979, it has been widely read and
used in many courses at universities and colleges. It has been
translated into German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish. The response has generally been positive. There are, of
course, many who disagree with the arguments presented in
the book, but the disagreement has almost always been at the
level of reasoned debate. The only exception has been the reaction in German-speaking countries. In Germany, Austria, and
Switzerland opposition to the views contained in this book
reached such a peak that conferences or lectures at which I was
invited to speak have been cancelled, and courses at German
universities in which the book was to be used have been subjected to such repeated disruption that they could not continue.
For readers interested in further details of this sorry story a fuller
account is reprinted as an appendix.
Naturally, the German opposition to this book has made me
reflect on whether the views I have expressed really are, as at
least some Germans appear to believe, so erroneous or so dangerous that they must not be uttered. Although much of the
German opposition is simply misinformed about what I am
saying, there is an underlying truth to the claim that the book
breaks a taboo - or perhaps more than one taboo. In Germany
since the defeat of Hitler it has not been possible openly to

discuss the question of euthanasia, nor the issue of whether a
human life may be so full of misery as not to be worth living.
More fundamental still, and not limited to Germany, is the taboo
on comparing the value of human and nonhuman lives. In the
commotion that followed the cancellation of a conference in
Germany at which I had been invited to speak, the German
sponsoring organisation, to disassociate itself from my views,
passed a series of motions, one of which read: The uniqueness
of human life forbids any comparison - or more specifically,
equation - of human existence with other living beings, with
their forms of life or interests.' Comparing, and in some cases
equating, the lives of humans and animals is exactly what this
book is about; in fact it could be said that if there is any single
aspect of this book that distinguishes it from other approaches
to such issues as human equality, abortion, euthanasia, and the
environment, it is the fact that these topics are approached with
a conscious disavowal of any assumption that all members of
our own species have, merely because they are members of our
species, any distinctive worth or inherent value that puts them
above members of other species. The belief in human superiority
is a very fundamental one, and it underlies our thinking in many
sensitive areas. To challenge it is no trivial matter, and that such
a challenge should provoke a strong reaction ought not to suprise us. Nevertheless, once we have understood that the
breaching of this taboo on comparing humans and animals is
partly responsible for the protests, it becomes clear that there is
no going back. For reasons that are developed in subsequent
chapters, to prohibit any cross-species comparisons would be
philosophically indefensible. It would also make it impossible
to overcome the wrongs we are now doing to nonhuman animals, and would reinforce attitudes that have done immense
irreparable damage to the environment of this planet that we
share with members of other species.
So I have not backed away from the views that have caused
so much controversy in German-speaking lands. If these views

have their dangers, the dangers of attempting to continue to
maintain the present crumbling taboos are greater still. Needless
to say, many will disagree with what I have to say. Objections
and counter-arguments are welcome. Since the days of Plato,
philosophy has advanced dialectically as philosophers have offered reasons for disagreeing with the views of other philosophers. Disagreement is good, because it is the way to a more
defensible position; the suggestion that the views I have advanced should not even be discussed is, however, a totally different matter, and one that I am quite content to leave to readers,
after they have read and reflected upon the chapters that follow.
Though I have not changed my views on the issues that have
aroused the most fanatical opposition, this revised edition contains many other changes. I have added two new chapters on
important ethical questions that were not covered in the previous edition: Chapter 9 on the refugee question and chapter
10 on the environment. Chapter 2 has a new section on equality
and disability. The sections of Chapter 6 on embryo experimentation and fetal tissue use are also new. Every chapter has
been reworked, factual material has been updated, and where
my position has been misunderstood by my critics, I have tried
to make it clearer.
As far as my underlying ethical views are concerned, some
of my friends and colleagues will no doubt be distressed to find
that countless hours spent discussing these matters with me
have served only to reinforce my conviction that the consequentialist approach to ethics taken in the first edition is fundamentally sound. There have been two significant changes to
the form of consequentialism espoused. The first is that I make
use of the distinction drawn by R. M. Hare, in his book Moral
Thinking, between two distinct levels of moral reasoning - the
everyday intuitive level and the more reflective, critical level.
The second is that I have dropped the suggestion — which I
advanced rather tentatively in the fifth chapter of the first edition
- that one might try to combine both the 'total' and 'prior

existence' versions of utilitarianism, applying the former to sentient beings who are not self-conscious and the latter to those
who are. I now think that preference utilitarianism draws a
sufficiently sharp distinction between these two categories of
being to enable us to apply one version of utilitarianism to all
sentient beings. Nevertheless, I am still not entirely satisfied with
my treatment of this whole question of how we should deal
with ethical choices that involve bringing a being or beings into
existence. As Chapters 4 - 7 make clear, the way in which we
answer this perplexing question has implications for the issues
of abortion, the treatment of severely disabled newborn infants,
and for the killing of animals. The period between editions of
this book has seen the publication of by far the most intricate
and far-sighted analysis to date of this problem: Derek Parfit's
Reasons and Persons. Unfortunately, Parfit himself remains baffled by the questions he has raised, and his conclusion is that
the search for 'Theory X' - a satisfactory way of answering the
question - must continue. So perhaps it is hardly to be expected
that a satisfactory solution can emerge in this, both slimmer
and more wide-ranging, volume.
In writing this book I have made extensive use of my own
previously published articles and books. Thus Chapter 3 is based
on Animal Liberation (New York Review/Random House, 2d
edition, 1990), although it takes into account objections made
since the book first appeared in 1975. The sections of Chapter
6 on such topics as in vitro fertilisation, the argument from
potential, embryo experimentation, and the use of fetal tissue,
all draw on work I wrote jointly with Karen Dawson, which
was published as 'IVF and the Argument From Potential' in
Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 17 (1988), and in Peter Singer,
Helga Kuhse, and others. Embryo Experimentation (Cambridge
University Press, 1990). In this revised edition. Chapter 7 includes points reached together with Helga Kuhse in working
on our much fuller treatment of the issue of euthanasia for

severely disabled infants, Should the Baby Live? (Oxford University Press, 1985). Chapter 8 restates arguments from 'Famine,
Affluence and Morality', Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1
(1972) and from 'Reconsidering the Famine Relief Argument'
in Peter Brown and Henry Shue (eds.) Food Policy: The Responsibility of the United States in the Life and Death Choices (New York,
The Free Press, 1977). Chapter 9 again draws on a co-authored
piece, this time written with my wife, Renata Singer, and first
published as 'The Ethics of Refugee Policy' in M. Gibney (ed.),
Open Borders? Closed Societies? (Greenwood Press, New York,
1988). Chapter 10 is based on 'Environmental Values', a chapter
that I contributed to Ian Marsh (ed.), The Environmental Challenge (Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1991). Parts of Chapter
11 draw on my first book, Democracy and Disobedience (Oxford,
Clarendon Press, 1973).
H. J. McCloskey, Derek Parfit, and Robert Young provided
useful comments on a draft version of the first edition of this
book. Robert Young's ideas also entered into my thinking at an
earlier stage, when we jointly taught a course on these topics
at La Trobe University. The chapter on euthanasia, in particular,
owes much to his ideas, though he may not agree with everything in it. Going back further still, my interest in ethics was
stimulated by H. J. McCloskey, whom I was fortunate to have
as a teacher during my undergraduate years; while the mark
left by R. M. Hare, who taught me at Oxford, is apparent in the
ethical foundations underlying the positions taken in this book.
Jeremy Mynott, of Cambridge University Press, encouraged me
to write the book and helped to shape and improve it as it went
For assistance with the revised edition, I must thank those
with whom I have worked jointly on material that has been
included in this book: Karen Dawson, Helga Kuhse, and Renata
Singer. Helga Kuhse, in particular, has been a close colleague
for the past ten years, and during that period I have learned
much by discussing most of the topics in this book with her.

She also read and commented on several chapters of this revised
edition. Paola Cavalieri gave me detailed comments and criticism on the entire draft, and I thank her for suggesting several
improvements. There are, of course, many others who have
challenged what I wrote in the first edition and forced me to
think about these issues again, but to thank them all is impossible, and to thank a few would be unjust. This time it was
Terence Moore, at Cambridge University Press, whose enthusiasm for the book provided the stimulus for me to carry out
the revisions.
To give an uncluttered text, the notes, references, and suggested further reading are grouped together at the end of the




HIS book is about practical ethics, that is, the application
of ethics or morality - 1 shall use the words interchangeably
- to practical issues like the treatment of ethnic minorities,
equality for women, the use of animals for food and research,
the preservation of the natural environment, abortion, euthanasia, and the obligation of the wealthy to help the poor. No
doubt the reader will want to get on to these issues without
delay; but there are some preliminaries that must be dealt with
at the start. In order to have a useful discussion within ethics,
it is necessary to say a little about ethics, so that we have a clear
understanding of what we are doing when we discuss ethical
questions. This first chapter therefore sets the stage for the remainder of the book. In order to prevent it from growing into
an entire volume itself, I have kept it brief. If at times it is
dogmatic, that is because I cannot take the space properly to
consider all the different conceptions of ethics that might be
opposed to the one I shall defend; but this chapter will at least
serve to reveal the assumptions on which the remainder of the
book is based.



Some people think that morality is now out of date. They regard
morality as a system of nasty puritanical prohibitions, mainly
designed to stop people having fun. Traditional moralists claim
to be the defenders of morality in general, but they are really
defending a particular moral code. They have been allowed to

Practical Ethics
preempt the field to such an extent that when a newspaper
headline reads BISHOP ATTACKS DECLINING MORAL STANDARDS, we expect to read yet again about promiscuity, homosexuality, pornography, and so on, and not about the puny
amounts we give as overseas aid to poorer nations, or our reckless indifference to the natural environment of our planet.
So the first thing to say about ethics is that it is not a set of
prohibitions particularly concerned with sex. Even in the era of
AIDS, sex raises no unique moral issues at all. Decisions about
sex may involve considerations of honesty, concern for others,
prudence, and so on, but there is nothing special about sex in
this respect, for the same could be said of decisions about driving
a car. (In fact, the moral issues raised by driving a car, both
from an environmental and from a safety point of view, are
much more serious than those raised by sex.) Accordingly, this
book contains no discussion of sexual morality. There are more
important ethical issues to be considered.
Second, ethics is not an ideal system that is noble in theory
but no good in practice. The reverse of this is closer to the truth:
an ethical judgment that is no good in practice must suffer from
a theoretical defect as well, for the whole point of ethical judgments is to guide practice.
Some people think that ethics is inapplicable to the real world
because they regard it as a system of short and simple rules like
'Do not lie', 'Do not steal', and 'Do not kill'. It is not surprising
that those who hold this view of ethics should also believe that
ethics is not suited to life's complexities. In unusual situations,
simple rules conflict; and even when they do not, following a
rule can lead to disaster. It may normally be wrong to lie, but
if you were living in Nazi Germany and the Gestapo came to
your door looking for Jews, it would surely be right to deny
the existence of the Jewish family hiding in your attic.
Like the failure of a restrictive sexual morality, the failure of
an ethic of simple rules must not be taken as a failure of ethics
as a whole. It is only a failure of one view of ethics, and not

About Ethics
even an irremediable failure of that view. The deontologists those who think that ethics is a system of rules - can rescue
their position by finding more complicated and more specific
rules that do not conflict with each other, or by ranking the
rules in some hierarchical structure to resolve conflicts between
them. Moreover, there is a long-standing approach to ethics
that is quite untouched by the complexities that make simple
rules difficult to apply. This is the consequentialist view. Consequentialists start not with moral rules but with goals. They
assess actions by the extent to which they further these goals.
The best-known, though not the only, consequentialist theory
is utilitarianism. The classical utilitarian regards an action as
right if it produces as much or more of an increase in the happiness of all affected by it than any alternative action, and wrong
if it does not.
The consequences of an action vary according to the circumstances in which it is performed. Hence a utilitarian can never
properly be accused of a lack of realism, or of a rigid adherence
to ideals in defiance of practical experience. The utilitarian will
judge lying bad in some circumstances and good in others, depending on its consequences.
Third, ethics is not something intelligible only in the context
of religion. I shall treat ethics as entirely independent of religion.
Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of 'good' is nothing other than 'what
God approves'. Plato refuted a similar claim more than two
thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some
actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case
it cannot be the gods' approval that makes them good. The
alternative view makes divine approval entirely arbitrary : if the
gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of
helping our neighbours, torture would have been good and
helping our neighbours bad. Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by
maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve

Practical Ethics
of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own
making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that
God is good? That God is approved of by God?
Traditionally, the more important link between religion and
ethics was that religion was thought to provide a reason for
doing what is right, the reason being that those who are virtuous
will be rewarded by an eternity of bliss while the rest roast in
hell. Not all religious thinkers have accepted this argument:
Immanuel Kant, a most pious Christian, scorned anything that
smacked of a self-interested motive for obeying the moral law.
We must obey it, he said, for its own sake. Nor do we have to
be Kantians to dispense with the motivation offered by traditional religion. There is a long line of thought that finds the
source of ethics in the attitudes of benevolence and sympathy
for others that most people have. This is, however, a complex
topic, and since it is the subject of the final chapter of this book
I shall not pursue it here. It is enough to say that our everyday
observation of our fellow human beings clearly shows that ethical behaviour does not require belief in heaven and hell.
The fourth, and last, claim about ethics that I shall deny in
this opening chapter is that ethics is relative or subjective. At
least, I shall deny these claims in some of the senses in which
they are often made. This point requires a more extended discussion than the other three.
Let us take first the oft-asserted idea that ethics is relative to
the society one happens to live in. This is true in one sense and
false in another. It is true that, as we have already seen in
discussing consequentialism, actions that are right in one situation because of their good consequences may be wrong in
another situation because of their bad consequences. Thus casual sexual intercourse may be wrong when it leads to the existence of children who cannot be adequately cared for, and not
wrong when, because of the existence of effective contraception,
it does not lead to reproduction at all. But this is only a superficial form of relativism. While it suggests that the applicability


About Ethics
of a specific principle like 'Casual sex is wrong' may be relative
to time and place, it says nothing against such a principle being
objectively valid in specific circumstances, or against the universal applicability of a more general principle like 'Do what
increases happiness and reduces suffering.'
The more fundamental form of relativism became popular in
the nineteenth century when data on the moral beliefs and
practices of far-flung societies began pouring in. To the strict
reign of Victorian prudery the knowledge that there were places
where sexual relations between unmarried people were regarded as perfectly wholesome brought the seeds of a revolution
in sexual attitudes. It is not surprising that to some the new
knowledge suggested, not merely that the moral code of nineteenth-century Europe was not objectively valid, but that no
moral judgment can do more than reflect the customs of the
society in which it is made.
Marxists adapted this form of relativism to their own theories.
The ruling ideas of each period, they said, are the ideas of its
ruling class, and so the morality of a society is relative to its
dominant economic class, and thus indirectly relative to its economic basis. So they triumphantly refuted the claims of feudal
and bourgeois morality to objective, universal validity. But this
raises a problem: if all morality is relative, what is so special
about communism? Why side with the proletariat rather than
the bourgeoisie?
Engels dealt with this problem in the only way possible, by
abandoning relativism in favour of the more limited claim that
the morality of a society divided into classes will always be
relative to the ruling class, although the morality of a society
without class antagonisms could be a 'really human' morality.
This is no longer relativism at all. Nevertheless, Marxism, in a
confused sort of way, still provides the impetus for a lot of woolly
relativist ideas.
The problem that led Engels to abandon relativism defeats
ordinary ethical relativism as well. Anyone who has thought

Practical Ethics
through a difficult ethical decision knows that being told what
our society thinks we ought to do does not settle the quandary.
We have to reach our own decision. The beliefs and customs
we were brought up with may exercise great influence on us,
but once we start to reflect upon them we can decide whether
to act in accordance with them, or to go against them.
The opposite view - that ethics is always relative to a particular society - has most implausible consequences. If our society
disapproves of slavery, while another society approves of it, we
have no basis to choose between these conflicting views. Indeed,
on a relativist analysis there is really no conflict - when I say
slavery is wrong I am really only saying that my society disapproves of slavery, and when the slaveowners from the other
society say that slavery is right, they are only saying that their
society approves of it. Why argue? Obviously we could both be
speaking the truth.
Worse still, the relativist cannot satisfactorily account for the
nonconformist. If 'slavery is wrong' means 'my society disapproves of slavery', then someone who lives in a society that
does not disapprove of slavery is, in claiming that slavery is
wrong, making a simple factual error. An opinion poll could
demonstrate the error of an ethical judgment. Would-be reformers are therefore in a parlous situation: when they set out
to change the ethical views of their fellow-citizens they are
necessarily mistaken; it is only when they succeed in winning
most of the society over to their own views that those views
become right.
These difficulties are enough to sink ethical relativism; ethical
subjectivism at least avoids making nonsense of the valiant efforts of would-be moral reformers, for it makes ethical judgments depend on the approval or disapproval of the person
making the judgment, rather than that person's society. There
are other difficulties, though, that at least some forms of ethical
subjectivism cannot overcome.
If those who say that ethics is subjective mean by this that

About Ethics
when I say that cruelty to animals is wrong I am really only
saying that I disapprove of cruelty to animals, they are faced
with an aggravated form of one of the difficulties of relativism:
the inability to account for ethical disagreement. What was true
for the relativist of disagreement between people from different
societies is for the subjectivist true of disagreement between any
two people. I say cruelty to animals is wrong: someone else
says it is not wrong. If this means that I disapprove of cruelty
to animals and someone else does not, both statements may be
true and so there is nothing to argue about.
Other theories often described as 'subjectivist' are not open
to this objection. Suppose someone maintains that ethical judgments are neither true nor false because they do not describe
anything - neither objective moral facts, nor one's own subjective states of mind. This theory might hold that, as C. L.
Stevenson suggested, ethical judgments express attitudes, rather
than describe them, and we disagree about ethics because we
try, by expressing our own attitude, to bring our listeners to a
similar attitude. Or it might be, as R. M. Hare has urged, that
ethical judgments are prescriptions and therefore more closely
related to commands than to statements of fact. On this view
we disagree because we care about what people do. Those features of ethical argument that imply the existence of objective
moral standards can be explained away by maintaining that this
is some kind of error - perhaps the legacy of the belief that
ethics is a God-given system of law, or perhaps just another
example of our tendency to objectify our personal wants and
preferences. J. L. Mackie has defended this view.
Provided they are carefully distinguished from the crude form
of subjectivism that sees ethical judgments as descriptions of the
speaker's attitudes, these are plausible accounts of ethics. In
their denial of a realm of ethical facts that is part of the real
world, existing quite independently of us, they are no doubt
correct; but does it follow from this that ethical judgments are
immune from criticism, that there is no role for reason or ar7

Practical Ethics
gument in ethics, and that, from the standpoint of reason, any
ethical judgment is as good as any other? I do not think it does,
and none of the three philosophers referred to in the previous
paragraph denies reason and argument a role in ethics, though
they disagree as to the significance of this role.
This issue of the role that reason can play in ethics is the
crucial point raised by the claim that ethics is subjective. The
non-existence of a mysterious realm of objective ethical facts
does not imply the non-existence of ethical reasoning. It may
even help, since if we could arrive at ethical judgments only by
intuiting these strange ethical facts, ethical argument would be
more difficult still. So what has to be shown to put practical
ethics on a sound basis is that ethical reasoning is possible. Here
the temptation is to say simply that the proof of the pudding
lies in the eating, and the proof that reasoning is possible in
ethics is to be found in the remaining chapters of this book; but
this is not entirely satisfactory. From a theoretical point of view
it is unsatisfactory because we might find ourselves reasoning
about ethics without really understanding how this can happen;
and from a practical point of view it is unsatisfactory because
our reasoning is more likely to go astray if we lack a grasp of
its foundations. I shall therefore attempt to say something about
how we can reason in ethics.

What follows is a sketch of a view of ethics that allows reason
an important role in ethical decisions. It is not the only possible
view of ethics, but it is a plausible view. Once again, however,
I shall have to pass over qualifications and objections worth a
chapter to themselves. To those who think these undiscussed
objections defeat the position I am advancing, I can only say,
again, that this whole chapter may be treated as no more than
a statement of the assumptions on which this book is based. In

About Ethics
that way it will at least assist in giving a clear view of what I
take ethics to be.
What is it to make a moral judgment, or to argue about an
ethical issue, or to live according to ethical standards? How do
moral judgments differ from other practical judgments? Why
do we regard a woman's decision to have an abortion as raising
an ethical issue, but not her decision to change her job? What
is the difference between a person who lives by ethical standards
and one who doesn't?
All these questions are related, so we only need to consider
one of them; but to do this we need to say something about
the nature of ethics. Suppose that we have studied the lives of
a number of different people, and we know a lot about what
they do, what they believe, and so on. Can we then decide
which of them are living by ethical standards and which are
We might think that the way to proceed here is to find out
who beljeves it wrong to lie, cheat, steal, and so on and does
not do any of these things, and who has no such beliefs, and
shows no such restraint in their actions. Then those in the first
group would be living according to ethical standards and those
in the second group would not be. But this procedure mistakenly
assimilates two distinctions: the first is the distinction between
living according to (what we judge to be) the right ethical standards and living according to (what we judge to be) mistaken
ethical standards; the second is the distinction between living
according to some ethical standards, and living according to no
ethical standards at all. Those who lie and cheat, but do not
believe what they are doing to be wrong, may be living according to ethical standards. They may believe, for any of a
number of possible reasons, that it is right to lie, cheat, steal,
and so on. They are not living according to conventional ethical
standards, but they may be living according to some other ethical standards.
This first attempt to distinguish the ethical from the non9

Practical Ethics
ethical was mistaken, but we can learn from our mistakes. We
found that we must concede that those who hold unconventional ethical beliefs are still living according to ethical standards,
if they believe, for any reason, that it is right to do as they are doing.
The italicised condition gives us a clue to the answer we are
seeking. The notion of living according to ethical standards is
tied up with the notion of defending the way one is living, of
giving a reason for it, of justifying it. Thus people may do all
kinds of things we regard as wrong, yet still be living according
to ethical standards, if they are prepared to defend and justify
what they do. We may find the justification inadequate, and
may hold that the actions are wrong, but the attempt at justification, whether successful or not, is sufficient to bring the
person's conduct within the domain of the ethical as opposed
to the non-ethical. When, on the other hand, people cannot
put forward any justification for what they do, we may reject
their claim to be living according to ethical standards, even if
what they do is in accordance with conventional moral principles.
We can go further. If we are to accept that a person is living
according to ethical standards, the justification must be of a
certain kind. For instance, a justification in terms of self -interest
alone will not do. When Macbeth, contemplating the murder
of Duncan, admits that only 'vaulting ambition' drives him to
do it, he is admitting that the act cannot be justified ethically.
'So that I can be king in his place' is not a weak attempt at an
ethical justification for assassination; it is not the sort of reason
that counts as an ethical justification at all. Self-interested acts
must be shown to be compatible with more broadly based ethical principles if they are to be ethically defensible, for the notion
of ethics carries with it the idea of something bigger than the
individual. If I am to defend my conduct on ethical grounds, I
cannot point only to the benefits it brings me. I must address
myself to a larger audience.
From ancient times, philosophers and moralists have ex10

About Ethics
pressed the idea that ethical conduct is acceptable from a point
of view that is somehow universal. The 'Golden Rule' attributed
to Moses, to be found in the book of Leviticus and subsequently
repeated by Jesus, tells us to go beyond our own personal interests and 'love thy neighbour as thyself - in other words, give
the same weight to the interests of others as one gives to one's
own interests. The same idea of putting oneself in the position
of another is involved in the other Christian formulation of the
commandment, that we do to others as we would have them
do to us. The Stoics held that ethics derives from a universal
natural law. Kant developed this idea into his famous formula:
'Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same
time will that it should become a universal law.' Kant's theory
has itself been modified and developed by R. M. Hare, who sees
universalisability as a logical feature of moral judgments. The
eighteenth -century British philosophers Hutcheson, Hume, and
Adam Smith appealed to an imaginary 'impartial spectator' as
the test of a moral judgment, and this theory has its modern
version in the Ideal Observer theory. Utilitarians, from Jeremy
Bentham to J. J. C. Smart, take it as axiomatic that in deciding
moral issues 'each counts for one and none for more than one';
while John Rawls, a leading contemporary critic of utilitarianism, incorporates essentially the same axiom into his own theory
by deriving basic ethical principles from an imaginary choice in
which those choosing do not know whether they will be the
ones who gain or lose by the principles they select. Even Continental European philosophers like the existentialist Jean -Paul
Sartre and the critical theorist Jurgen Habermas, who differ in
many ways from their English-speaking colleagues - and from
each other - agree that ethics is in some sense universal.
One could argue endlessly about the merits of each of these
characterisations of the ethical; but what they have in common
is more important than their differences. They agree that an
ethicalj)rinciple cannot be justified in relation to any partial or
sectional group. Ethics takes a universal point of view. This does


Practical Ethics
not mean that a particular ethical judgment must be universally
applicable. Circumstances alter causes, as we have seen. What
it does mean is that in making ethical judgments we go beyond
our own likes and dislikes. From an ethical point of view, the
fact that it is I who benefit from, say, a more equal distribution
of income and you who lose by it, is irrelevant. Ethics requires
us to go beyond T and 'you' to the universal law, the universalisable judgment, the standpoint of the impartial spectator
or ideal observer, or whatever we choose to call it.
Can we use this universal aspect of ethics to derive an ethical
theory that will give us guidance about right and wrong? Philosophers from the Stoics to Hare and Rawls have attempted
this. No attempt has met with general acceptance. The problem
is that if we describe the universal aspect of ethics in bare, formal
terms, a wide range of ethical theories, including quite irreconcilable ones, are compatible with this notion of universality;
if, on the other hand, we build up our description of the universal aspect of ethics so that it leads us ineluctably to one
particular ethical theory, we shall be accused of smuggling our
own ethical beliefs into our definition of the ethical - and this
definition was supposed to be broad enough, and neutral
enough, to encompass all serious candidates for the status of
'ethical theory'. Since so many others have failed to overcome
this obstacle to deducing an ethical theory from the universal
aspect of ethics, it would be foolhardy to attempt to do so in a
brief introduction to a work with a quite different aim. Nevertheless I shall propose something only a little less ambitious.
The universal aspect of ethics, I suggest, does provide a persuasive, although not conclusive, reason for taking a broadly
utilitarian position.
My reason for suggesting this is as follows. In accepting that
ethical judgments must be made from a universal point of view,
I am accepting that my own interests cannot, simply because
they are my interests, count more than the interests of anyone
else. Thus my very natural concern that my own interests be

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